Embracing the singular “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun
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Almost nothing about being transgender has been easy for me. Luckily, I’m English-speaking, which means there’s a very simple way to use the pronouns that work best for me. The singular use of “they” and its other grammatical forms (“them”/“theirs”) is the most comfortable pronoun usage for me. I’m a genderqueer, transgender person whose gender presentation is more masculine-of-centre.
What does all of that mean?
Respect and inclusion
It means I’m a human being just like you, who deserves the same amount of respect as my other colleagues. It also means that I don’t feel comfortable being referred to as “male” or “female”; and while I will accept masculine pronouns, using neutral pronouns when speaking of me is the best way to not exclude me.
We have an incredible capacity and ability to continually grow the English language, adapting and evolving as our society does. We have many opportunities to grow ourselves, interpersonally, at work and in our wider social circles, by being self-aware and self-educating and by moving with the times, as it were.
Evolution of singular “they”
The use of singular “they” has been around for centuries, from William Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Charles Dickens. More recently, singular “they” has become normalized via the protections that have been put in place for genderqueer and gender non-conforming (or non-binary) individuals. This is certainly in part thanks to Canada’s Bill C-16. Having basic human rights protections against discrimination towards transgender persons is a great step forward for Canada.
As editor Gael Spivak also points out in her blog post, singular “they” has been around for hundreds of years, and it’s here to stay. I’ve had many people ask me what the point is, why I make things harder for myself, why I can’t just “pick one” (meaning “he” or “she”), or inquire about the importance of pronouns and their proper usage.
Personal pronouns are linked to identity
Pronouns are important as they teach people how to properly refer to the person they’re speaking about. They show people the best way to respect me. They’re important as a part of my identity and an expression of who I am. I know I’m genderqueer as surely as a cisgender person knows they’re not transgender! I don’t use singular “they” in order to make things harder for others, to be trendy, or to push any kind of agenda. I use it because it makes me feel like myself. It’s the right and most comfortable fit for me.
Perhaps you don’t feel as attached to your pronouns, but perhaps you’ve never had to assert them as valid. Maybe you haven’t had to assert your personal pronouns as a part of your identity while others have purposefully misused these words to attack you … while others have decided for you that, on the basis of their perception of who you are, you aren’t who you say you are.
Learning to use neutral pronouns
One of the problems I’ve encountered in the workplace is how to properly use “they” as a singular pronoun. I don’t demand that everyone in my workplace use singular “they” for me, as I’m also comfortable being referred to in the masculine. However, I do normalize singular “they” when speaking about clients or other colleagues, depending on the context. I do tell people that I use “they” pronouns, I wear a “they/them” pronoun pin with my identification card, and I have produced educational materials on neutral pronouns and how to use them. So, how exactly do you use them? Here are a few examples with some fun facts about myself:
- Christopher is not in today; they went to Iceland on vacation.
- They have a cat named Agent S.
- They are always finding ways to help educate others about LGBTQ2+ issues.
Using singular “they” pronouns, or any of the neopronouns, takes practice and patience. Patience for yourself as you retrain your brain, and patience from the person whose pronouns you’re attempting not to botch. “Practice makes perfect” holds true for the singular use of “they” pronouns. I invite you to practise: you can start by thinking of all the instances where you already automatically use “they” in the singular. For example, if you receive a phone call but the caller hangs up, you may be likely to say, “I don’t know, they hung up” when someone asks you who called.
What other instances can you think of where you have already begun to normalize the use of “they” as a singular pronoun?
The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.
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